Beneath the surface of even the Richmond household of the Confederate president, the never-certain relationships between slave, servant and master ran the gamut from loyalty to treachery.
When the American Civil War erupted, white Southerners suddenly faced the chilling prospect of waging war while living in close quarters with 4 million enslaved blacks. Just as slaves pro- vided the labor vital to sustaining the Confederate war effort, they simultaneously formed an unseen and voiceless potential enemy within the South. Even in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, servants ran away or engaged in theft, arson and espionage during the course of the war. Indeed, the Davis household mirrored the racial conflict that plagued the entire South.
It isn’t surprising that Jefferson Davis was caught unprepared for this racial conflict—all his ideas about slavery had formed at Brierfield, his plantation in Mississippi. There, Davis had a long history of seemingly harmonious relations with his slaves, modeled primarily on the example of his older brother, Joseph Davis. Corporal punishment and overworking were forbidden, and slaves were given as much food as they pleased. A slave jury judged slave transgressions, with Davis often commuting severe sentences.
Jefferson Davis depended on the management skills of his highly capable family slaves. James Pemberton, who had been with Davis as a youth, was the Brierfield plantation manager and overseer until his death in 1852. Davis and Pemberton worked well together, although the formal barriers between slave and master were always maintained: Pemberton never sat with his master unless invited, nor was he ever rewarded with his freedom. After Pemberton’s death, Davis often leaned upon Ben Montgomery, the longtime black overseer at Hurricane, Joseph Davis’ adjacent plantation. White Southerners viewed the Pemberton and Montgomery families as model slaves. The Civil War would reveal, however, that even these families felt no real loyalty toward a Confederate nation built upon a cornerstone of the Peculiar Institution.
By 1860 Richmond, Va., had a unique form of urban servitude that was based on leasing slaves for domestic and industrial work. The population of Richmond was 31 percent slave, which accounted for 48 percent of the industrial workforce, while free blacks made up yet another 7 percent of the city. Most Richmond blacks worked in domestic positions, but with growing frequency owners leased their slaves for industrial work—most notably in the ironworks, the flour mills and tobacco factories. Urban slaves, unlike their rural counterparts, were usually free to live on their own, away from the master’s eyes.
White Richmond feared its black labor force as much as it depended upon it, and white society had developed codes to keep the black population in line. Blacks could not smoke in public, carry canes unless infirm, block sidewalks or ride in a hack. Black churches had to be cleared within 30 minutes of the conclusion of religious services, and evening passes were required for blacks to move about the city. More than any other city in the South, Richmond restricted black schools.
In the summer of 1861, President Davis and his family moved to Richmond. First lady Varina Davis received a polite but chilly reception from the city’s aristocrats because she spoke her mind about such unfeminine subjects as politics and dared to walk and shop in the streets of Richmond while visibly pregnant. Richmond elite preferred petite, fair women—the kind that called the dark-haired, olive-skinned Mrs. Davis “the Squaw” behind her back.
Only two Brierfield slaves initially accompanied the Davis family to Richmond. One was Jim Pemberton Jr., son of the deceased Brierfield overseer. Arriving in the capital during the summer, the pregnant Mrs. Davis probably had to scramble to find staff for the large house that the city had purchased to serve as the Confederate executive mansion. This was made more difficult by the fact that Richmond blacks—slave and free—were generally hired with yearly contracts during the “hiring season” that began just after New Year’s Day. Mrs. Davis successfully found servants, however, and, despite Richmond’s objections to her and largely due to her husband’s status, the house became the center of the Confederate capital’s society.
Richmond had evolved into an “upstairs-downstairs” society. Servants kept personal lives and thoughts private, the more out of sight the better. The Davis family, in keeping with other families of their class, kept no records of servant names, pay, hours, food, lodgings or other benefits. Mrs. Davis probably required about 15 servants to keep up with the social obligations that accompanied the president’s new office. Decampment, death, termination of employment, sale and military impressment for labor would cause high servant turnover rates during the war years. Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy has identified the names of only some 20 Davis servants employed in Richmond during the war; a few more are named in letters of Jefferson and Varina Davis.
Confident of his exemplary treatment of slaves, the Confederate president could not imagine that a slave might cause trouble in the face of such benevolence, truly believing that blacks were content within their bondage. As with most Southern whites, Davis held that slavery kept an inferior race contained, protecting blacks from their alleged inherent weaknesses of laziness, irresponsibility and lack of intelligence. Davis, normally somewhat indifferent to religion, theorized that blacks were divinely created for servitude, though they might one day evolve into peasants with limited freedom.
Despite carefully developed theories on black character, which suggested that slave loyalty increased with the level of kindness that he or she received, fear of slave insurrection was pervasive, but largely unspoken, among many Southerners. Richmond diarist Mary Chestnut, a close friend of Varina Davis, aptly expressed white anxiety toward black servants: “People talk before them as if they were chairs and tables. They make no sign. Are they stolidly stupid? Or wiser than we are; silent and strong, biding their time?” In the fall of 1861, white Richmond recoiled in horror at the murder of Chestnut’s cousin, Betsey Witherspoon, by the family servants. Mrs. Witherspoon had been renowned in Richmond for her kind treatment of the servants. White assumptions about black character were soon to be tested.
The first major staff incident within the Davis home did not occur until a year into the Civil War. William Jackson, a trusted and literate slave hired by the Davis family as coachman, defected in May 1862, leaving his wife and three children behind in Richmond. He reported to Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell at the Union camp in Fredericksburg. Although Jackson did not provide hard military intelligence on troop movements or numbers, he spoke of Richmond’s morale and the quarreling between President Davis and General Joseph E. Johnston. The Confederacy responded to this incident by placing a bounty on Jackson.
On November 13, 1862, authorities arrested several slaves for stealing blank Confederate $20 notes from the Confederate Treasury, forging signatures on them and circulating them as genuine. The men had filed down a key to gain admission into the room where the notes were kept. The Richmond Daily Dispatch reported that one of the men was named Dick, “slave of David Clarke, and in the employment of President Davis, who had access to the Custom-House.” Subsequent Daily Dispatch reports are confusing, but it is clear that the men “were carried before…Commissioner Warren,” who was overseeing the case. During the hearing, the accused offered contradictory statements about which one did what and “little testimony as to their guilt, beside their own admissions, was produced.” The exact fate of the men is not recorded, since, as the Daily Dispatch reported on December 1, “The leak in the Treasury…having been discovered and stopped, the parties were discharged, their respective owners having announced their intention to send them where they could display their talents to more advantage than discrediting the currency of the Confederacy.”
Battlefield setbacks led to mounting tensions in the Confederate capital, and Richmond authorities increased their oppression of blacks. Failure of a slave to produce a written pass could result in immediate impressment for defense work. Confederate soldiers became notorious for taking out their frustrations on blacks, often brutalizing and killing them. The harsh atmosphere in Richmond proved to be fertile ground for breeding black resistance toward the Confederacy.
Still, the Confederate government tried to foster the increasingly imperiled institution. During 1862-63, the Davises hired out many of their Mississippi plantation slaves to work on Vicksburg defenses; at least four of them died in the besieged city. Slave owners were paid a minimum of $1 per day per slave by the Confederate government. This contrasted unfavorably with the Confederate private who brought home a mere $11 per month at the beginning of the war, with the pay increased to $18 per month by 1864. Adding salt to this wound was the Confederate law passed in October 1862, exempting owners of 20 or more slaves from the draft. President Davis vehemently denied that the war was about slavery—but what else could the common foot soldier think when such practices occurred? Increasingly, the war appeared to be for the benefit of wealthy slave owners.
In spring 1863, Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant neared the end of his long Vicksburg campaign to take the Mississippi River. As the South faced the prospect of losing crucial land and 30,000 soldiers, President Davis learned from his brother, Joseph, that his Mississippi home had been captured by Yankee raiders, and most of the 137 slaves had fled. The loss of Brierfield devastated Davis, and he was further jolted by news that some of his slaves robbed the plantation before running away. Only six adult slaves and a few children remained. During the war, Joseph Davis’ overseer at Hurricane, Ben Montgomery, had assumed many Brierfield responsibilities. Following the Federal takeover of the Davis plantation, Union Rear Adm. David Porter recruited Montgomery for repairing gunboats, calling him “an ingenious mechanic.” Furthermore, Porter hired Ben’s son, Isaiah, as cabin boy while Ben’s other son, William Thornton, joined the U.S. Navy.
As the war continued, the Davises’ servant problems worsened. In December 1863, a bullet from an unknown source narrowly missed the Confederate president’s ear. Although rumors spread, no evidence implicated a black, but tensions heightened nonetheless. Two more Davis slaves decamped in January 1864. Earlier, when Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan had threatened to take Richmond in the spring of 1862, Mrs. Davis fled with the children to Raleigh, N.C. Her personal maid, Betsey, was one of the few who accompanied the first lady into temporary exile. In a letter dated June 1862, Mrs. Davis asked her husband to pass on “Betsey’s love to Jim.” Now, in early 1864, Betsey and Jim ran away, taking $80 in gold and $2,400 in Confederate notes.
Mary Chestnut bemoaned the decampment in her diary: “The President’s man, Jim, that he believed in as we all believe in our own servants, ‘our own people,’ as we call them, and Betsy [sic], Mrs. Davis’s maid, decamped last night. It is miraculous that they had the fortitude to resist the temptation so long.” Although there is some confusion about Jim’s identity, sources at the Museum of the Confederacy indicate that “Jim” was James Pemberton Jr. The fact that the Davis family had treated their servants with what was considered to be extraordinary kindness only served to accentuate the ominous “servant problem” since there appeared to be no way to predict slave loyalty.
The servant problems continued. Less than two weeks after Jim and Betsey’s departure, a fire was set in the Davis base ment—the servant’s domain. This arson attempt coincided with the abrupt departure of Henry, the Davis butler. The Richmond Examiner reported that Henry “had no quarrel with his master, and no cause can be assigned for his secession, other than that he had recently been supplied with a new outfit of clothing and money, which he was very proud of, and probably wanted to exhibit it to the Yankees.”
Yet another servant, Cornelius, ran away the next month. The Daily South Carolinian reported on February 20, 1864: “These continual elopements indue the belief that Mr. Davis’s negroes are tampered with by abolitionists. This last runaway, Cornelius by name, had his pockets stuffed with money, preserves, ham, chicken, and biscuit, showing how kindly he was treated, or else how great a rogue he was.”
By 1864 Richmond was hungry and the Confederacy was fighting for its life. The Confederate dollar, never backed by gold or land, was worth about 4 cents. Although Varina Davis entertained lavishly at state functions, the president’s family struggled to put food on the table. Jefferson and Varina Davis sold two slaves for $1,612 in Confederate currency in January 1864. That the Davis family was able to divest itself of slaves at all is surprising. The Confederacy now discouraged slave-grown crops such as cotton and tobacco in favor of crops that would feed a hungry nation. With more and more slave owners and overseers going into the army, slaves had become a burden and a liability.
During the course of the Civil War, more than 200,000 black volunteers—predominantly Southern—fought with the Union and approximately 500,000 black men and women migrated into Union territory. Southerners were enraged that their former slaves would so betray them. Unable to withstand such a massive drain on its workforce, the South began to debate the merits of freeing and arming slaves. In a letter to General Joseph E. Johnston submitted on January 2, 1864, a group of Confederate officers headed by Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne described slavery as the South’s most “insidious weakness.” Cleburne called for military recruitment of slaves, rewarding them with freedom. Johnston and Davis suppressed Cleburne’s proposal, fearing negative reactions from the country at large.
By fall of 1864, however, the Confederacy had all but collapsed; Lincoln had won the Northern election, Confederate armies were fighting for their very survival, Southern industries had been shattered and attempts to create dissension in the North had crumbled. As the number of slave runaways continued to increase, Davis finally recognized that the loyalty of the black population must be secured. In November he proposed to his Congress the recruiting and arming of slaves; in return they and their families would receive freedom. Davis met with immediate and fierce resistance. It was not until March 1865 that the embattled General Robert E. Lee persuaded the Congress to endorse the recruitment of slaves with their eventual freedom implied, although not guaranteed. Even then, recruitment could only take place with the approval of their masters. This change was far too little and far too late.
While appearing to be loyal servants, some blacks were recruited or volunteered to serve as Union spies. Among them may have been a woman usually known as Mary Elizabeth Bowser. Many tales are told about her, but few facts are certain. We do know that Mary had been a slave belonging to the family of wealthy Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union spymaster living among Richmond’s elite. It is public record that in April 1861 Mary and Wilson Bowser were married in St. John’s Church. Nothing else is known for sure; it is said that Van Lew planted Bowser as a maid into the Davis home to collect information and pass it along to Union agents.
By early 1863, Elizabeth Van Lew had helped form Richmond’s Union sympathizers into a covert circle that the Federals dubbed the “Richmond Ring.” This group consisted of hundreds of spies, reaching deep into strategic Confederate strongholds—Libby Prison, the War and Navy departments, Richmond businesses, railroads, arsenals and, with Mary Bowser, perhaps inside the Confederate executive mansion itself. During the 1864-65 siege of Petersburg, Van Lew communicated so regularly with General Grant that General Lee complained the enemy received his directives before they reached his own lieutenants.
Van Lew destroyed all records of the Richmond Ring after the Civil War to protect sources, and the only documented reference to Mary Bowser as a Union agent is from an unreliable source, Thomas McNiven, a Scottish baker prone to exaggeration. Recent research by Temple University professor Elizabeth Varon suggests that a Van Lew slave by the name of Mary Jane Richards could have been this mysterious agent. As a child, Richards was sent by the Van Lews to New Jersey to be educated. She spent four unhappy years in Liberia with the African Colonization Society, returning to Richmond in 1861 as war broke out.
After the Civil War, Richards married a man with the surname Garvin, and distinguished herself as an educator. In an 1867 interview, Mary Garvin revealed that she had worked in the secret service during the war. Furthermore, in an 1867 letter to the Freedmen’s Bureau, Garvin revealed that she had operated as a detective. While contradicting other accounts of Mary Elizabeth Bowser, the details of Mary Richards’ life lend credibility to the legend of a spy in the Confederate “White House.”
Following the death of Brierfield overseer James Pemberton in 1852, Jefferson Davis had few intimate friends outside his family. Strangely, Davis seemed emotionally closer to several of his servants than he was to his white colleagues, and some of those servants remained loyal to him. Two trusted servants, James H. Jones and Robert Brown, were with Davis in his flight from the Yankees during the fall of Richmond. They were captured with the president the next month, and Jones was briefly imprisoned in Fort Monroe. Brown was with Jefferson Davis at his death, and Jones drove the hearse at the funeral of the former Confederate president.
Mrs. Davis had acquired Jones in Raleigh, N.C., in 1862 to replace the decamped William Jackson as coachman and valet. After the war, Jones, born a free man, returned to Raleigh and began a distinguished career. He served as deputy sheriff of Wake County, Raleigh city alderman, contractor for city waterworks and street railway, and helped form Raleigh’s first black firefighting company. Throughout his life, Jones kept his views on emancipation to himself. Despite this, Jones was selected as a grand deputy of the Frederick Douglass Equal Rights League that was formed by the First State Convention of Colored Men. It is likely that this shrewd man had more of the politician in him than did his former Confederate employer.
Another loyal family servant was James Henry Brooks, or Jim Limber, as he was called. Mrs. Davis reportedly rescued the boy when his black guardian physically abused him. She took Jim home, cleaned his wounds, and he became a live-in playmate of the Davis children. Mrs. Davis planned to have him trained for a trade, and he accompanied Mrs. Davis and the children when they fled Richmond in 1865. Separated from the Davis family soon after the war ended, Jim never saw his surrogate family again.
Spencer, another memorable servant, foisted himself on the kindly Mrs. Davis during the last year of the Civil War. Owned by another Richmond family, Spencer was unclean, unmannerly—and probably slightly retarded. The Davises simply could not get rid of him. He would answer the front door, always denying the caller access to the president, saying, “I tell you, sir, Marse Jeff ’clines to see you.” Unless rescued by another servant, the caller never got any farther.
A mulatto woman named Ellen Barnes became Varina Davis’ most faithful personal maid during the last year of the war. A Richmond native and possibly a free woman, Barnes also acted as nurse to the children and Jim Limber. After the war, Barnes accompanied Mrs. Davis to Canada, where the maid and her new husband, Frederick Maginnis, may have settled permanently. Ellen Barnes Maginnis and James Jones corresponded with Mrs. Davis throughout their lives. Following the war, Varina Davis was questioned about the espionage work of her former maid, Mary Bowser. Mrs. Davis vehemently denied that any of her Richmond servants could have been spies. In a note dated April 17, 1905, Mrs. Davis wrote to Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy:
My daughter has sent me your letter of inquiry to know if I had in my employ an educated negro woman whose services were “given or hired by Miss Van Lew” as a spy in our house during the war. We never had any such person about us, nor did Miss Van Lew ever hire or offer us any such person—I had no “educated negro” in my household. My maid was an ignorant girl born and brought up on our plantation who if she is living now, I am sure cannot read, and who would not have done anything to injure her master or me if even she had been educated. That Miss Van Lew may have been imposed upon by some educated negro woman’s tales I am quite prepared to believe.
Her response seems disingenuous, since we know that several of her servants were literate. William Jackson was well known to be educated, and Dick may have been the one who signed the stolen bank notes. James Jones had a successful postwar business and public service career. Mrs. Davis returned several times to her former homes after the war, but she never acknowledged any disloyalty among her former servants. In 1866 she somewhat sourly described her visit with former Brierfield slaves, Jack Abberson and his family: “They were very glad to see me— but talked like proprietors of the land.”
In the two-volume memoir of her husband, Varina Davis did not mention her Richmond servants; people of that time did not do so. To the end of her days, she spoke with only warmth of her servants during the war years, rarely, if ever, alluding to a “servant problem,” implying that it simply did not exist. She must have suspected that even the “loyal” servants heard incriminating talk among the other servants, yet they remained silent. It is probable that the grim reality was too painful for Mrs. Davis to contemplate.
President and Mrs. Davis had to look no farther than their own home to see that the prevailing views on enslavement were faulty, yet they chose to ignore the problem. They carried on during the Civil War years—and even the postwar years—never wavering in their beliefs about the character of blacks. Jefferson and Varina Davis perfectly exemplified a nation that never understood the enemy within.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.